hike helped me mourn | Hiker
Forty-one days after my wife and I saw our baby die in the hospital, we thought it would be in our best interests to get out of the house.
We decided to hike and started from a trail near our home in Saranac Lake, NY early in the morning to beat the crowds. We just wanted to be alone with each other; we dreaded meeting someone we knew and having to explain what had happened to our baby in the middle of a public path.
In the fall of 2018, we had moved from Buffalo to Saranac Lake, an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise in the heart of the Adirondacks. In addition to its small town charm, there were mountains to climb, lakes for kayaking, and the vacation destination of Lake Placid just a few miles away.
After settling in, we decided to hike some of our new local mountains before winter came. But a few days later, a severe snowstorm struck and halted our plans in their tracks. Without the experience or equipment to hike in winter conditions, we postponed until the spring thaw.
A few months later, as we eagerly watched the snow melt, Andrea and I learned that we were going to be parents for the first time. Our child was due in November which meant putting our hiking dreams on hold again. But that didn’t really bother us. We talked about hiking with our son once he was old enough. I researched the best baby carriers for toddlers and photographed the three of us climbing peaks and making memories. Even though it seemed like a lifetime away, we were already making plans for our family.
Then, in July, our lives changed forever. Early one Sunday morning, Andrea started having contractions strong enough that we rushed her to the hospital. At 23 weeks pregnant, she gave birth unexpectedly and at 5:39 a.m. she gave birth to our son, Louis. He was born prematurely and did not survive the morning; Louis died just hours after his birth.
Over the next few weeks, we went through a routine of crying, sleeping and searching for answers, opening the door only to family. Overnight our parenting books were replaced with books about the loss of a child and our living room filled with sympathy cards. I was scared for my wife, I had never seen her so sad before, and I barely functioned myself.
In the rare event that we left our apartment, we had a wonderful view of Baker Mountain from our front porch. It always reminded us of how great we felt when we hiked and how much we missed walking in the woods. Some days we would talk about hitting the trail again for the fresh air and sun that we so badly needed, although in our grief we felt guilty even for gazing at it. However, after weeks of what was becoming unhealthy confinement, we agreed that we had to spend time outside.
A little over a month after Louis died, we returned to the woods. Our first hike was 3,720ft Panther Mountain. When we reached the open meadow at the top, we stood there for a while, enjoying the moment, letting our bodies soak up the sun. We talked about Louis. We both cried, but ended up outside. This is what we needed the most.
After checking off a few more summits we felt confident enough to try something more difficult and put our gear together for Scarface Mountain.
Scarface is one of six peaks near Saranac Lake that is a local hiking collection called Saranac Lake 6er. We started on 6th Challenge the summer before Louis died. Now that gave us something to look forward to, and we wanted to finish it more than ever.
But it wasn’t that easy. Externally Andrea and I did a day of each hike, linger over lunch and bask in the sun on our skin. But no matter how good a time we were, I was always on edge. For most of my life I have suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and whenever I am out of my comfort zone, just about anywhere outside my home , I am vulnerable to panic attacks. As stressful as the hike can be for me, I enjoy it even more. I love the effort of the climb and the brilliance of success at the top.
Before exploring a new mountain, I always research the route in advance, hoping to ease my anxiety by eliminating surprises. On our two other climbs since Louis died, I had no problem; the trails were easy to navigate. The same couldn’t be said for Scarface. The biggest complaint listed in online travel reports was difficult navigation which set off the alarm before I even set foot on the trail.
The morning we left for Scarface, I did my best to block out the fear that had been building up all week. I knew the climb was going to be tough. But there was something about seeing my wife fall apart that made me want to be stronger for her, even though I was also fighting to stay together. For years she had always been the strongest in the relationship, and now she needed me. I couldn’t give up. It meant too much to me.
The hike got off to a good start. Once we got over two rocky climbs and then up a steep incline I started to feel settled. But then the tags started to disappear. The higher we went, the less consistent they became. And then they left.
My breathing has become labored; my vision widened. I was suddenly consumed with the idea that we would not make it out of the mountain alive, instead of freezing to death alone. Usually when I find myself in a situation like this I can put logic on irrational thinking, but that wasn’t the case today.
“Hey, are you okay there?” Andrea could tell that something was wrong.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, though concern was evident in my voice.
“I just haven’t seen any markers in a while and it freaks me out,” I told him as I frantically scanned every tree in my path. “It will be fine. Don’t worry.”
Andrea brought my attention back to reality. She suggested that we stop for a few minutes so that I could recover. Initially, I did not agree, as I desperately needed to review the pavement. But she brought me back from attacks worse than this one, and on her advice I agreed to quit.
We sat down and I tried to focus my thoughts. Even without the markers, as long as we stayed on course and followed the trail there wasn’t much risk of getting lost. I was barely starting to get my head around, worrying about the epic survival scenarios that ranged from barely possible to implausible.
Fifteen minutes later we were at the top, a disappointing finish line with zero visibility thanks to thick forest. But when I saw the summit marker the relief was overwhelming. We did. I was proud of myself for being done, but more than that, more than doing it for myself, I had done it for my son and my wife. I felt so empty after Louis died, but when I put my hand on this tree marker, I started to smile a little more. Nothing would ever fill the void in my heart after losing a child, but approaching Scarface with Andrea, in honor of our son, made me feel positive for the first time in weeks.
Andrea and I returned to Buffalo a few months later after finding out that she was pregnant again. We weren’t sure what would happen when we got home, but we had already faced bigger challenges in our lives and we didn’t let the uncertainty slow us down.
After we got back to town, we couldn’t help but feel like we left part of our family behind, where Louis died – these trails and peaks have woven into our lives. This is where we mourned the loss of our son, and where we bonded, we fought, cried, laughed and finally got stronger together as a couple.
Almost a year after the day we hiked Scarface Mountain, Andrea gave birth to our daughter, Violet Louisa. You want to bet we will be taking her hiking and our daughter will be part of our Adirondack story as well.